As a new school year looms, the parents of a certain
sector of pupils will be hoping for a little understanding.
Because being labelled gifted is not always easy. Shane
Adrienne Alexander remembers, vividly, the day when a Plunket
nurse asked if her 1-year-old was saying his first words.
In fact - and this is told without a hint of parental pride -
her son David was speaking full sentences by that stage.
By kindergarten, David was reading simple books, a
development accepted by his parents but viewed with suspicion
''We'd tell the kindy teacher he was reading and you'd get
that look that suggests the proud mother whose son can recite
the alphabet - whoop-de-do. Then they'd come back a month
later and say, `oh my God, he can read','' Mrs Alexander
recalls, adding: ''By primary school ... well, that was
Accelerated a year at primary school and again at high
school, David headed to the University of Otago at the age of
16, completed a master's degree in computer science at 20,
and is now a professional computer game programmer based in
David (now 22) falls into the category ''gifted'', an
adjective that, according to the New Zealand Association for
Gifted Children, applies to 5% of pupils, young and older,
who will again bring their own quirks and questions to
classrooms throughout New Zealand next week as a new school
According to the Ministry of Education, the definition of
giftedness encompasses, ''those with exceptional abilities
relative to most other people. These individuals have certain
learning characteristics that give them the potential to
achieve outstanding performance.''
Often the terms ''gifted'' and ''talented'' are used together
to express a single concept. Where the term is
differentiated, giftedness is usually associated with high
intelligence or aptitude, and talent is usually related to a
high level of performance in such areas as music, art, craft,
dance or sport. French Canadian educational psychologist
Françoys Gagné defines giftedness as a naturally occurring
ability, while the outward expression of that ability he
It is now accepted that gifted and talented people are not
simply those with high intelligence, but rather the terms
represent a wide range of students with many different
abilities. And though there are hundreds of definitions of
gifted and talented, they can broadly be classified as
conservative, liberal or contemporary.
Conservative definitions are usually based on a single
criterion, such as intelligence, and identification is based
on a high IQ score. These definitions usually limit
giftedness and talent to a small fraction of the school
population (for example, that aforementioned 5%).
In contrast, liberal definitions are based on a broad range
of criteria and adopt an inclusive approach that accepts a
fairly high percentage (for example, 10-15%) of the school
population as having special abilities.
Contemporary definitions tend to avoid stating any specific
percentage of the school population as being gifted or
talented because schools differ so much in their
interpretation of variables associated with the concept.
Sarah Hjertquist, president of the Otago Association for
Gifted Children, an early childhood educator and co-ordinator
and mother of gifted children, says giftedness is often
''People can be gifted in so many areas. For some children,
their gifts might not even show at school; they might be
gifted in a sport or art that they don't get to do at school.
At home, they might be hungry to self-extend themselves on a
particular interest,'' Mrs Hjertquist says.
''Common subjects picked up by gifted kids are geology,
space, dinosaurs, nature ... It becomes so meaningful to them
because there is so much within each topic. They gain so much
understanding about life and science and they want to extend
their reading and research skills. It's self-driven
exploration. That's what sets them apart.
''My daughter, for instance, does rhythmic gymnastics and her
drive to master a technique is amazing. It can become
competitive if a child is that way inclined, but for many it
is the mastering of an activity that's the important factor.
For some, once they've mastered something, they'll drop it.
''Unfortunately, that perfectionist trait can also hold them
back. They can be afraid that if they don't perfect something
others will see them as a failure,'' Mrs Hjertquist says.
The picture becomes even cloudier when a child has a specific
learning disability, physical impairment, disorder, or
condition. Such children, sometimes described as ''twice
exceptional'' or 2E, have hidden disabilities that may
prevent them from achieving high academic results despite
their advanced cognitive abilities.
Though their high ability enables them to find coping
strategies to mask their learning disabilities, their
learning disabilities in turn limit their chances to convert
that potential. Twice exceptional students often perform
inconsistently across the curriculum, appear ''average'' on
standardised testing, and can become frustrated because of
both their unidentified strengths and disabilities, which in
turn can lead to behavioural issues.
Mrs Alexander says her son David was ''globally'' gifted,
which is to say, he was good across the board academically.
However, had he been gifted in just one area, ''that would
have been more challenging''. Prompted by her son's
giftedness and its associated issues, she has been involved
in gifted education ''for a long time''.
A teacher at Taieri College who spends two hours a week
catering specifically to the needs of year 7 and 8 students
via Gate (Gifted and Talented Education) programmes, Mrs
Alexander says 2E students pose an interesting juggling act.
''If I have a child who is twice exceptional, on the one hand
I'm going to want to do things that are going to allow their
potential to shine through. That might mean you don't put the
same requirements on them: for instance, I might let them use
a computer sometimes if they struggled with handwriting.''
On the subject of computers, Mrs Alexander has been
collaborating with the Otago Association for Gifted Children
(OAGC) on a series of computer camps for gifted children at
Tirohanga, near Outram, over the school holidays. She is also
planning a medieval camp in October in association with the
Otago Medieval Society, also aimed at gifted students, ''who
have passions for these kinds of topics''.
Those who suspect their offspring might have cognitive
abilities beyond what might be termed ''normal'' for their
age are often correct.
As president of the Otago Association for Gifted Children and
mother of a gifted child, Mrs Hjertquist is used to fielding
calls from parents asking about how they can get help.
''Usually - and this is something Linda Silverman [an
American educational psychologist and outspoken advocate for
gifted children] says - most times if a parent thinks their
child is gifted, they are right. However, others may not
''It is that tall poppy syndrome. We seem to be very good at
letting our sportspeople shine, but we're not so good at
doing the same for others.''
Based in Dunedin, the OAGC offers support to parents and
teachers of gifted children, holds informal forums and
organises speakers on a range of gifted topics throughout the
year. It also organises occasional visits by educational
psychologists to assess giftedness. (At present, according to
the OAGC, there is no one in Otago specifically qualified to
New Zealand schools have been legally required to provide
education tailored to gifted and talented students since the
start of the 2005 school year. Specifically, the National
Administration Guideline (NAG) 1 (iii)(c) ''requires boards
of trustees, through their principals and staff, to use
good-quality assessment information to identify students who
have special needs (including gifted and talented), and to
develop and implement teaching and learning strategies to
meet the needs of these students''.
A 2008 report by the Education Review Office, ''Schools'
Provision for Gifted and Talented Students'', evaluated the
provision for gifted and talented students in 261 primary
schools and 54 secondary schools throughout New Zealand and
highlighted three main stages in a school's progress towards
effective provision for gifted and talented students. The
three stages involve: developing a shared understanding of
gifted and talented education; implementing good-quality
provision for gifted and talented students; and ensuring
positive outcomes for gifted and talented students.
Ms Hjertquist emphasises the OACG can't recommend schools,
''because we don't know what school would best suit a certain
child''. However, she does suggest parents talk to
prospective schools and discuss how their child's needs might
best be met.
''If a school doesn't even want to talk about it ... well,
you make up your own mind.''
Jacqui Seque, an OAGC committee member and a teacher at
Concord School, where she has set up a gifted and talented
extension programme called Curious Minds, is all too aware of
the frustrations some parents can face.
She recalls her daughter Jemma (19) being able to recognise
letters at the age of five and a-half months.
''As a young child she would do quite advanced puzzles. She
is more linguistically inclined. She loves languages and is
in France studying at the moment,'' Mrs Seque says.
''I knew my daughter was doing some remarkable things, but I
used to get a few comments along the lines of `what do you
expect when your mother's a teacher?''
'When you've been around gifted people and seen the battles
they've gone through ... it's really hard when your child
brings home from school a pre-reading book when they are
reading chapter books, or your child is reading The Hobbit at
the age of seven and takes it along to school for `book news'
only to have everyone look at them strangely.''
According to the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children,
only a small proportion of children may be identified as
gifted at school. And that lack of recognition can lead to
Some children may be lonely because their interests do not
match those of their peers. They may have difficulties at
school because of their unconventional behaviour and
questioning attitude. They can become distressed through
frustration and boredom, or through an imbalance between
their intellectual and emotional development. Also, they may
aim to underachieve so as to become more acceptable to their
peers, a pattern which could lead to them becoming
''These kids can get bullied, too,'' Mrs Seque says.
''I don't know if people realise how at-risk this group of
kids is. Of course, they need academic support, but they also
require emotional support.
''I think there is a difference between academically talented
kids - the straight-A students who find school easy, who know
how to study and apply themselves - and truly gifted
children, who seem to just know things but you don't know how
they do. They are often extremely creative.''
Expectations can also be problematic, Mrs Seque notes.
''If a child expects they are always going to be good at
something, then something goes wrong ... it can be a big
''The best thing a teacher can do is to be empathetic to such
children. I've had kids come to our school and we've managed
to turn them around just by understanding what's driving
''Some preschool primary and secondary schools are making
efforts to improve communication by discussing and creating
pupil profiles based on evidence, as well as parent
questionnaires and teaching observation scales to help make
the transition into different schools easier.
They are also developing specific teaching strategies or
extension and enrichment programmes,'' Ms Seque says.
''There are some great teachers out there who don't judge
children on their behaviour and actually ask why are they
behaving in such a way.
''I've tried to advocate as much as I can for these kids over
the last few years. Somebody has got to be. Somebody has got
to fight for them. There are schools out there that are
trying hard ... but there are heaps of kids who just fall
flat on their faces. They are lost in the system because of
their behaviour or other issues. They are a special needs
group and they need to be acknowledged as such.''
Adrienne Alexander puts it another way:''If you had a
14-year-old who was operating at the level of a
seven-year-old, no one would argue if you said this child
needed a special programme to help them.
''But if you have a seven-year-old operating at a 14-year-old
level, they need to have their needs met, too.'
Compared to other children your child's age, how many of
these descriptors fit your child?
• Reasons well (good thinker)
• Learns rapidly
• Has extensive vocabulary
• Has an excellent memory
• Has a long attention span (if interested)
• Sensitive (feelings hurt easily)
• Shows compassion
• Morally sensitive
• Has strong curiosity
• Perserverant in interests
• Has high degree of energy
• Prefer older companions or adults
• Has a wide range of interests
• Has a great sense of humour
• Early or avid reader (if too young to read,
loves being read to)
• Concerned with justice, fairness
• Judgement mature for age at times
• Is a keen observer
• Has a vivid imagination
• Is highly creative
• Tends to question authority
• Has facility with numbers
• Good at jigsaw puzzles
For more information on gifted and talented children,